Benham Farthi’s POV
Less than six hours after I scuttled a fifty-million-dollar spy trawler in Iranian waters, I was sitting on a jet headed for Langley with my station chief in the chair next to me, and my second in command behind me. The fact that the head of Middle Eastern Operations was recalled with me did not give either of us a good feeling. It was like being called to the Principal’s office.
I had left the Abraham Lincoln less than thirty minutes after arrival, having recovered the helmet camera and talked with the doctors. Woodley had a good eight hours in the hyperbaric chamber to keep the decompression sickness from causing further damage, then he was grounded for at least a week. Mark had spoken with the Commanding Officer, and made it clear no one was to talk to him about what had happened beyond what was medical necessity. The CIA would fly someone out to interview him; he was a good man, a good asset. He wasn’t going to face the music back home like we were.
And he wasn’t going to become a star on the wall at Langley like Tim Schmidt was.
The camera from James’ wetsuit was in my pocket, and the mini-SD card I had swallowed was still making its way through. It would be recovered once we got back. We had been left out of the diplomatic crisis that we had caused; the Iranians were up in arms with good reason. I had gone over everything in my head countless times, and I didn’t know what I could do differently. I was proud of my crew, they had moved swiftly to ensure all evidence was destroyed. The white phosphorous bombs would reduce the Operations room to molten metal, even after sinking to the bottom it would continue to burn through everything. The only irreplaceable intelligence was in the card I was carrying and the camera.
Except the camera on Tim Schmidt’s helmet. I said a silent prayer that his gear would keep his body on the bottom where it would never be discovered.
“It was a good run,” Steven Royce said to me as I looked back from the window. “Sometimes life has a way of telling you it’s time to get out while you can. Maybe this is that signal for both of us.”
“You’re still young, Steven,” I said. “Barely sixty.”
“True, but I’m done. I’ve got grandchildren I’ve never spent time with, and I can’t keep hiding in my work forever.”
I just laughed. “You’ll miss the hell out of it inside a month. Guys like us, we don’t retire, we keep coming back until we’re dead.” He looked at me like I was reading his mail. “Take some damn vacation, visit your kids, and you’ll be at Langley begging for a new field post in three weeks. I’ll bet fifty bucks on it.”
“I’ll take that bet,” he said as he held out his hand.
We swapped stories the rest of the way, finally landing at Andrews Air Force Base where the plane was towed into a hangar and shut down. After the hangar doors were closed, a pair of black SUV’s with tinted windows pulled up and CIA security men stepped out. Mark and I were put in one vehicle while Steven was put in the other, and we started the drive to CIA headquarters. Parking in the underground lot, we were taken to a restricted elevator and down to one of the situation rooms two hundred feet underground. Surrounded by solid rock and concrete, with no external connections and the best in countersurveillance technology, it was the one place we could speak freely. “The camera, please,” the Deputy Director of Middle Easter Operations said. I handed it over, and a computer technician took it and started to connect it to a laptop. “No copies of this have been made?”
“No sir, I’ve not touched it except to remove it from James’ wetsuit on the carrier.”
“And your data?”
“I’ll need a laxative and a few hours,” I said. He nodded, understanding how it was transported.
A half-dozen other senior members and Iran Desk analysts entered the room and sat down at the conference table. The last person in was the man he had met only once, when he secured the funding to convert the trawler into a spy ship for the Gulf.
The CIA’s Director of Covert Operations was a legend. Starting out in the field in Cold War Germany, Stan DeSchand worked his way up to become Station Chief in Moscow before taking over six years ago. “What the hell happened out there, Ben,” he asked as he sat down.
He didn’t like stories, and he’d been kept in the loop on our mission so I could do a summary. “We had fourteen indications that could have been the lost torpedo, and we had eliminated eight of them in two weeks of diving ops. The dives are carried out miles from our trawler, as the targets are inside Iranian territorial waters,” I said for the benefit of the others. “We received a distress signal from one of our divers; due to the nature of the mission, activating this meant they were in grave danger. We responded at speed, finding and recovering one of our two divers, former SEAL James Woodley. He told us his partner, Tim Schmidt, was dead. We had patrol boats heading our way, so we didn’t stick around. The patrol boats were going to catch us before we left their waters, so I ordered the emergency sanitize and set charges. The crew and I abandoned ship on Zodiaks just before the charges went. It was a successful sanitization, the Bountiful burned hot and sank within minutes before it could be boarded. Our exfil was a success as well.”
“No chance of our equipment being compromised,” one of the men asked.
“I don’t think so, sir. The white phosphorous bombs would turn everything in the room to molten metal. The ship was in three hundred and thirty feet of water when it sank.”
“Still inside Iranian waters, and not beyond diving or salvage ops,” Stan said.
“Yes, but it won’t be easy. Have we seen any salvage activity on the site?” I was starting to get nervous.
“No, but if you aren’t confident in the sanitization process, we might risk additional operations to make sure.”
I shook my head. “I watched it go up, I’m confident it was clean. If we go after it, we draw more attention to what we might have been doing, and the last thing we need is the Iranians to start exploring the dive site. My advice, sir, is to do nothing. Let them believe that whatever reason we had for going to that area had nothing to do with what was underneath the ocean.”
We would have said more, but the technician had completed copying the video file from the helmet camera onto the laptop and was ready to start showing it. He put it up on the large televisions in the room. The footage started before they went into the water, so I filled in the details while they tried to find the part that showed what happened down there. “James said nothing was out of the ordinary until it wasn’t. I went bad quickly and with no warning. He said there was a fire, a moving light that swung towards Tim and severed both his legs off just below the hip. He barely avoided it, swimming back to the anchor line for the diving sled and making a rapid ascent.”
“He couldn’t make out what it was? Some kind of laser weapon, maybe an underwater torch?” The man looked skeptical.
“Look, he said it killed his partner before he could react then nearly killed him. Whatever it was, scared him enough he abandoned his ascent plan and activated the emergency beacon. He got out of there so fast he gave himself decompression sickness. I saw him when we pulled him from the water, he was going into shock.”
“Well, let’s just see then,” Stan said. We all watched on the screen as the two men reached the silty bottom, kicking up little clouds as they moved their fins. They adjusted their buoyancy vests and checked their tanks and dive computers, then they separated by ten feet or so, just enough so they could see each other’s lights. The two circled in the dark water, their lights showing nothing but mud and the occasional fish. Suddenly, a bright flame swept across the right side of the screen and Tim’s light shifted and pointed down. The camera turned towards him, just in time for a severed leg to float through the light and down to the mud. The camera got jerky as the line of flame swung back, this time barely missing him as he swam backwards from it. The camera turned as he pulled himself back to the anchor line and he dropped his weights, causing him to start rising faster than the bubbles.
“STOP,” Stan said. “Back it up twenty seconds.” The group watched it a dozen times, slowing it down, stopping it, but nobody could figure out what it was or how it worked. It was like a flaming sword had cleaved Tim in half, except they were three hundred feet underwater, a place that skilled divers could only go for twenty minutes at a time. “Anyone know what the fuck that was?”
“All right, I want image analysts on this, see if we can improve any of the frames to get a good look at it. I don’t have to remind anyone this is Top Secret-Special Compartmented Information. Any image we send out for analysis has to be vetted through my office, and nobody talks about where it came from. Understood?”
Everyone nodded, and he dismissed the group. “Not you two,” Stan said. We waited until everyone was gone and the door was closed. “No bullshit, what do you guys think it was?”
I looked at Mark and we both shook our heads. “It sounded ridiculous when I heard it, and what I saw makes no sense,” I said. “Without going back down there, I don’t see how we solve this.”
“The Iranians aren’t about to give us permission,” Stan said. “Mark, how would you go about investigating this site?”
“I’m not using divers, too dangerous. Ideally, I’d use a remote piloted vehicle, but the support ship has to be pretty close. The tethers work great vertically but would get all tangled up moving horizontally. I don’t think there is a way to operate one from outside Iranian waters, either.”
“Take a week and brainstorm. Then come to me with a plan. I want that torpedo, and I want to know what that weapon was that killed one of my men.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “What about Mr. Royce?”
“I have to talk him out of retirement.” We stood as he left, leaving us behind to look at each other. “I’m not the expert in this deepwater shit,” I told Mark. “You’re the Navy guy, who do we turn to?”
“I don’t know. SEALs aren’t the right ones, we’re not looking for a fight and this is pretty specialized work at this depth. We have Navy salvage divers, that’s the first place I’ll go. There are commercial dive teams that work on oil rigs, and I’ve seen television shows with marine biologists doing some amazing stuff. We should talk to James, he knows the mission and knows better what we need.”
I nodded, he should be out of the hyperbaric chamber. “Can you get a message to him? Maybe get him on a secure video feed?”
“I can,” he said. “You still have your Pentagon clearance?”
“No, but I can have Langley arrange it,” I said.
“I have to report in and work a few things. I’ll give you a call when I’m ready and take you in.”
“Thanks, Commander.” Neither of us had a home in the DC area, he was based out of Naples and I hadn’t been in the States in years. “Come on, let’s find something to eat, then a hotel. I’m exhausted.”
“Not yet,” he said. “You’re wanted down in Medical, they have this stuff they want you to drink. It’s the same stuff they gave me when I had my colonoscopy. Industrial strength colon blow, you don’t want to be more than ten feet from a toilet at any time.”
“Yeah, for days. It’s your own damn fault for swallowing the data.” We left the room as he escorted me to my fate.
A week later, we were back in the situation room with our plan. James had been very helpful and had pointed us to the technology that would be needed. A top-secret spy trawler wasn’t going to happen this time, we were looking smaller, a lot smaller, and native. The room filled with the same people, but they weren’t there to see me.
Once the door was secured, the enhanced images were put up on the screens and there were gasps in the room. “What the hell is that?”
“It looks like a bull, but that’s human shoulders.”
“Are those wings?”
“That’s an eagle,” another chimed in.
“It’s a cherubim,” I said.
“Cher-a-what?” Stan didn’t look away from the frightening image.
“A cherubim, an angel that directly attends to God, if I’m recalling my Bible lessons from high school correctly,” I said. “They are described as having four faces, representing the dominions of God. A human face for man, an ox for domesticated animals, a lion for wild animals, and an eagle for the birds of the air. They have two sets of wings, the bodies of a human and the hooves of a bull. They are outranked among the Angels of God only by the Seraphim.” I could see people looking from me to the image on the screen. “Oh, and in Genesis, two of them guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword that goes in all directions. They are set there to keep Man from returning and eating from the Tree of Life.”